Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill are commemorating the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination this weekend with a national conference that looks at his life and teachings and his relevance today for America, Islam and the world.
The two-day conference kicked off with a public panel discussion Friday afternoon at Duke University’s Forum for Scholars. Panelists agreed that Malcolm X’s legacy is undergoing a revival that began in the 1990s by hip hop culture and the sampling of his speeches in the music of artists who read Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as children.
City University of New York professor Zaheer Ali credits Malcolm X’s resurgence not only to hip hop, but also Spike Lee’s movie “Malcolm X” starring Denzel Washington and the re-emergence of the Nation of Islam under Louis Farrakhan during the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when the aspirations of people of color seemed to be at odds with the government.
Still, there is an uneasy acceptance of Malcolm X into the American mainstream because he is not an easily marketable figure, Ali said. He was an outspoken leader for the separatist Nation of Islam that taught its followers that whites were devils.
Michael Muhammad Knight, a PhD student at UNC-Chapel Hill, said Malcolm X’s break with the Nation of Islam enabled mainstream Americans to “turn him into Dr. King.”
“Part of white privilege says, ‘I don’t have to listen to the Nation of Islam,’” Knight said.
Recent revelations that Malcolm X had a same-sex encounter during his days as a Detroit hustler and had later problems with his marriage are also problematic for African Americans and others who view him as a hero without blemish after he was introduced to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad.
Ali said to speak of Malcolm X in some circles as a man with human failings makes it difficult for people to relate to the martyred leader.
“People worship idols, but they emulate other human beings,” Ali said. “If you become too good of an example, you become exemplary and an exception to the rule.”
Maytha Alhassen, a professor at the University of Southern California, agreed, saying somehow Malcolm X “appears less heroic if we humanize him.”
William “Bill” Hart, a UNC-Greensboro professor who moderated the panel discussion, noted that Malcolm X was a “full-bloodied human being, who had all of the doubts and uncertainties that all human beings have.
“When he spoke during his public performances, he was confident, without a shadow of a doubt,” Hart said. “But you have to understand that was a performance and should not be confused with who he was.”
The panelists also noted that Malcolm X’s brand of Pan Africanism would be relevant today with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter that accompanied nationwide and international protests following the deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., at the hands of white police officers.
“Malcolm challenged the civil rights movement, said Ali, who was one of the researchers for Marable’s controversial, Pulitzer Prize winning biography. “He embodied and questioned the state and its willingness to protect black lives, black rights, black liberty, voting, property and prosperity.”
Africans who had converted to Islam had been in America since they were kidnapped and brought over as slaves, but were never widely acknowledged or accepted. The 1960s CBS network story about the Nation of Islam titled “The Hate That Hate Produced” was an early example of modern Islamaphobia, Ali said.
“There was white anxiety over blacks in Muslim spaces that are autonomous, that are not controlled by white people,” he said.
Alhassen said part of the public perception of Islam as a foreign faith, one of Arab supremacy, has to do with how it is presented to Americans.
“When the president wants to speak to Muslims, he goes to Cairo,” she said. “He could have went to Philly.”
The conference will continue Saturday at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Nelson Mandela Auditorium at the FedEx Global Education Center, with more panel discussions. “The Muslim Malcolm” begins at 10 a.m. and ends at noon. A second discussion, “Teaching Malcolm,” is scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m., followed by a public reception.